Spook Lights by Eden Royce
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Eden Royce’s short story collection Spook Lights (named after a American South variation of the will-‘o-the-wisp, purported supernatural lights which guided escaped slaves to freedom) is subtitled “Southern Gothic Horror”. While perhaps not amounting to the quintessential southern Gothic literature of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, the description is apt. These stories use the folklore of the American South, the African diaspora, Haiti and various strains of voodoo tradition, then meld them into a contemporary American horror story format. The results are a mixed bag, quite unique and intriguing in theory but not always working in execution.
Short story collections inevitably have their fair share of good and bad pieces. In this case, “bad” isn’t quite the operative word as “forgettable” or perhaps “unfinished”. The opening story “The Watered Soul”, for instance, is a promising start, but bites off more than it can chew by introducing large themes concerning immortality, retribution, and love, then resolving the narrative before any of them are explored to satisfaction. Other stories, such as “Doc Buzzard’s Coffin”, “With the Turn of the Key”, and “Path of the War Chief” are more fleshed out as narratives, but they too leave their thematic backbone somewhat more frail than it ought to be. While I would never complain of brevity in an author’s work, here it is more an issue of build-up versus payoff—the plot advances steadily, then suddenly drops once we hit the climax. It is jarring and at times disappointing.
Royce is still a good writer, an imagination which contains a number of stories worth sharing and ideas worth tinkering with. She is the kind of writer who is able to incorporate a number of diverse inspirations into her work without interrupting her original ideas in the creative process. One really does get the sense of an author building off a tradition by pulling from her own experiences and creative spark.
The running themes throughout these stories are 1) the complex and often nasty aftermath of an abusive relationship and 2) the relationship between a woman in trouble and an older woman (often the mother) with exceptional and often surprising wisdom. Often these two are interlinked. My favorite in the set, “Since Hatchet Was a Hammer” deals with a woman escaping her domineering husband and seeking solace in her mother’s company. The mother/daughter dynamic is handled with care, the pathetically aggressive husband a terrifying menace looming over the story up until the ending sequence, the resolution both shocking and oddly comforting. It is definitely one of the less thematically challenging pieces in the collection, but at the same time its apparent simplicity keeps the narrative contained, more accessible. The narrative arc is much more fluid than many of the more experimental stories as well, the build-up and payoff in equilibrium.
Although this collection is a breeze to fly through in a day or two, it’s important to keep in mind how similar they are. This is far from a bad thing, as it is fascinating to witness the many directions one can go in when exploring the same small number of topics. Nevertheless it is easy for the stories to run together if read back-to-back. I would recommend spacing them apart, picking the collection up to read it every now and then instead of marathoning through.
In terms of horror, terror, and the grotesque, this collection is a veritable smorgasbord of all three. “Hag Ride” reaches David Cronenberg levels of body horror; “Rhythm” is a quietly shocking little tale; “The Choking End” sways more under the umbrella of weird fiction than anything else; “9 Mystery Rose” is a dread-inducing narrative of post-mortem retribution. In short, the scares come in a brilliant variety of forms.
These stories may not always work as well as they could have, but the reader still gets the sense that Royce had an interesting goal in mind. The more forgettable or confusing short stories don’t work not because they are bad. Rather they don’t work because Royce is experimenting with the format—throwing off our expectations, manipulating the flow of a traditional horror story. They aren’t always enjoyable, but these stories are always at least trying something new.